Golden brown wheat beer.
Over the past, a friend of Windward named Pat has been helping me learn to brew beer, and answering my questions about fermentation as it applies generally to preserving various kinds of fruits and vegetables.
The process of fermenting and brewing beer is a subtle art, and it can take a lifetime to master the various flavours that are common to commercial and home brewing. I won't be sharing the process in detail, because the process that I underwent is not necessarrily super relevant to what we are trying to do here at Windward. I will write more when I get more experience with the process.
Pat and I made a batch of Heffeweizen beer. A partially-filtered, wheat-based summer beer that seems reasonably appropriate to our situation given our ready access to locally grown wheat.
My first impression of the process of beer making:
Sanitation solution being poured into the airlock for the secondary fermentation.
The type of specialized home-brewing we did is expensive. Except for the water, all of the raw materials Pat and I worked with were commercially bought. And the stuff is not cheap. Special yeast, special hops, special grains, special malt, special sugar. The staggering array of sublty is a testiment to how serious people take their home brewing, and simply how long people have been brewing beer.
What I was most interested in is the basics. How to ensure that the fermentation works and that I do not spoil the whole mix? What are the basic qualities of a solution that are necessary to ensure a decently flavoured outcome?
- Sanitization is very important. Cleanliness is the most important recipe for success. This realization leaves me very curious about the methods people used before sanitizers! There must be some other kinds of ways people got around these issues, and I am interested in learning more of the details of that process.
- There are not a lot of hops in beer. My impresison earlier was that their was a lot. But we used about 2 oz of hops per 5-gallons. 2 oz is about the volume of a small sandwhich bag.
- Vinegar and beer do not mix. You do not want to use vinegar in the same vessel you want to brew in for the potential that aceto-bacter or other acid-producing bacteria friends decide to inhabit your fermentation vessel and turn a hop beer wort into a vinegar bath.
- Brewing beer is pretty water intensive, and so reasonably should be more centered in the times of years when we have a surplus of water such as the fall.
Where to take fermentation from here?
My perspective is that fermentation is a useful skill that will become increasingly relevant as we move away from refrigeration as a primary form of storage. In general, anything with starch or sugar can be stored via fermentation. Country wines made of potatoes, onions, root vegetables, tree fruits, cereal grains, and much more, all have a history of preservation by fermentation by folks in rural agricultural areas.
As it has been written before, making hard cider from apples is an excellent way to preserve their nutritional value, while also removing the fibrous element so as to arrive at a energy-concentrated, highly store-able, and delicious food product. Cider was an American staple in the day. Even more than beer or wine, cider apples were a symbol of the wealth of the colonial America. (Soan, The Way America Was)
There is a downside to alcohol as a food preservation method. Alcohol gets you drunk! And Alcohol is potentially an addictive substance. There are several books out there that go into detail about the sociological consequences of having an alcohol oriented society (as opposed to a caffeine or cacao oriented society). The routine ingestion of alcohol can have various desirable and undesirable consequences for any group, but I will save the arguments for another Notes article. However, it is important to take such details into account when thinking about the whole-picture perspective of creating a sustainable culture. (what books you ask? Ghost Map is the first that comes to mind.)
How much alcohol is enough to store food?
The least amount of alcohol necessary for successful preservation of a liquid is about 4%. anything less and there stands the risk of malicious bacteria taking up residence in the batch. Anything more, and you have more alcohol than you need, alcohol which will get you more drunk than may be desireable if you are just looking for some calories to round out your working day.
There are a couple of ways to end up with a 4% alcohol content.
You can only give the yeast so much sugar to eat.
downsides: if the yeast do not complete the fermentation you can end up with something with too little alcohol and the whole thing will spoil on the shelf.
Use Campden Tablets to keep yeast from reproducing and hence stopping fermentation when a 4% solution is reached. Usually the active compound in such products is Sodium or Potassium Metabisulphite.
downsides: the chemical is difficult to manufacture in a rural context and so would need to be imported into the homestead economy. Anytime you can avoid dependencies on imported goods, you are increasing the over all resiliency of the whole community.
Bottle the mixture at the right %alcohol and boil the bottles to kill the yeast.
Downsides: bottling individually is time consuming, where as barrels or other large containers require less materials, less work, less sanitization, and introduce less risk of contamination. So in many ways, when we are thinking toward a community of around 20 people individual bottles are somewhat less desirable. You could theoretically heat up a whole barrel, but the logistical considerations put that option in the “not desirable” category for me.
Diluting the mix with water
downsides: Not nearly as appetizing, it's watered down and likely tastes that way. And you are using up precious non-freezing storage space for water!
The yeast don't like light, hence the apron. Oddly suitable for yeast. :)
Where do we go from here?
Well, later on I'm hoping to try out some of the methods I've learned with different kinds of fruits. Pat graciously bought us some more brewing supplies such as a 6-gallon primary fermenter which may make the whole process go much more smoothly. Thanks Pat! Your help has been invaluable.
Apples and plums are the two main types of fruit that are on my radar currently since they are high-sugar fruits that we can gather in great abundance from our land and from wayside trees. Stay tuned in the future as we try out some more experiments in fermentation.
- You can only give the yeast so much sugar to eat.